All life is valuable

Grace and peace to you and through you …

This past week Charlize Theron spoke at the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban. She spoke the truth not simply about HIV / AIDS but about the stubborn state of our world and humanity that enables HIV to continue to be a death-sentence when it needn’t be:

“I think it is time that we acknowledge that something is terribly wrong. I think it’s time we face the truth about the unjust world we live in. The truth is we have every tool we need to prevent HIV in the world … and yet in SA alone 180 000 people died of AIDS last year. …let’s ask ourselves why haven’t we beaten this epidemic?

The real reason we have not beaten this epidemic boils down to one simple fact: We value some lives more than others. We value men more than women. Straight life more than gay life. White skin more than black skin. The rich more than the poor. An adult more than adolescents. I know this, I know this because AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for women’s bodies, for gay bodies, for youth or the poor. It doesn’t single out the vulnerable the oppressed or the abused. We single out the vulnerable the oppressed and the abused. We ignore them. We let them suffer. And then we let them die.”

She then called on the next generation of youth to end it. #GenEndIt

“I just want to be clear what the ‘it’ is. ‘It’ is not just AIDS. ‘It’ is the culture that condones rape and shames victims into silence. ‘It’ is the cycle of poverty and violence that traps girls into teen marriages and forces them to sell their bodies to provide for their families. ‘It’ is the racism that allows the white and the wealthy to exploit the black and the poor and then blame them for their own suffering. ‘It’ is the homophobia that shames and isolates LGBT youth and keeps them from life-saving healthcare and education.

HIV is not just transmitted by sex. It is transmitted by sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia. And if we are going to end AIDS we have to cure the disease within our own hearts and within our own minds first and I believe the young people can do it.”

In line with the biblical prophets Theron did three things: First, she correctly highlighted the core issue of our idolatrous faithlessness: that we value some lives more than others. Second, she drew attention to the vulnerable who suffer as a result of our idolatry – and the multi-layered nature of vulnerability that some endure. Third, she reminded us that the most public and political issues are at one and the same time the most intimate and personal. To transform the streets we must also transform our hearts.

Grace, Alan

Practicing Love

To love, really love is the most vulnerable thing. There is an openness we enter into, a gift we give, and one we are invited to receive. There is a standing there in that love and a breathing in of something that we know has caught us in a net of life that must then widen beyond ourselves in a risky norm shattering way. To commit to love is to trust, really trust and that is an incredibly hard thing sometimes to do.

Yet, this is the love that God calls forth from us. “Trust in me. Trust in my ways. Trust in the truth that is larger than your fears. Trust in the promises that will sustain longer than your days. Trust that it is worth dying for, the abundant life. Trust that all the change that comes with it, will lead in the end to the good.”

One of the women in my life who I always seek counsel from told me that strength to stand in love comes from the fire.

There is a sense that learning to love and love well is like learning to dance in fire. Sacrificial love that pours out oneself for others, that meets people in the middle, that pulls in the claws of harsh words and retributive actions, and stands in all that is right and just in the world catches us in a life changing heat that we have to learn to live in or we risk not really living at all.

To speak words of forgiveness to an enemy, to admit the ways you are wrong, to be quiet and let another speak, to risk harm coming to the skin of your body in order that the skin on another’s body might be honored as beautiful as yours, to stand in the threat where lines of division are cast, to know the cross is before you and to still carry on. Where does the strength come from for that?

We are more and more able to live love as we kneel for it and receive from the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, who can strip away illusions that we live with, rattle our skeletons till our closets are bare, and who chooses not to leave us in that vulnerable place alone, but chooses to enter in and love us from strength to strength in order that we might more and more be love in the world.

Strength comes from learning to dance in the fire of life. Finding our way in prayer, risking to stand in love in moments when it would be easier to sit, and trusting that strength rises in us as we risk a life that is more about God and others than ourselves. There is great vulnerability in this work of practicing love, we yield to it our very lives, and receive back from it life that makes more sense, for it is life lived in truth.

Martin Luther King Jr. named that “the ultimate measure of a man (woman) is not where he (she) stands in comfort and convenience, but where he (she) stands in times of controversy.” Our lives must be shaped by disciplines that allow us to be ready to live love in the moments of controversy, to be ready to stand for justice in the moments when we see it, and to know that practicing love takes strength and strength is raised up within us in the fires of living.

We are never without places to stand and practice love. The question is will we be vulnerable enough to enter each day more fully into the Jesus way of living? Submitting ourselves to the shaping fire is a vulnerable move that leads to great change in our being. As we allow the change in ourselves we do become part of the change needed in the world and I don’t know about you, but I don’t imagine the sidelines are the place we would find Jesus today. So, I encourage you to enter the dance in the fires that bring change.

With you on the journey,

I hope to see some of you this Wednesday as we are led through the Lord’s prayer by Emily Dao.

Words and Actions

Grace and Peace to you and through you …

South Africa is an extremely violent society. We cannot stand to absorb the full extent of this truth. To preserve our sanity we blot large parts of it out. We have become numb by necessity. As a people we carry high levels of trauma, and anger is never far from the surface of our living. A gun in this context can only spell death. There are many factors that contribute to our extreme levels of violence. Guns are one key factor. Removing the gun does not guarantee ending the violence but it does drastically reduce the lethality of the violence. Easy access to guns makes killing easy, more likely and more frequent, while strong gun laws have been shown, including within recent South African history, to reduce gun violence.

In such an extremely violent society it is a no brainer to legislate more stringent restrictions on gun ownership. Yet sadly this remains a struggle to achieve. Once again there are multitudes of reasons for this. The most basic reason is the continued belief that guns keep us safe. Sadly, because people are moved by fear more than the facts people acquire guns to keep safe, yet in the process place themselves in greater danger with the increased risk of accidents, fatal suicide, family-murder, femicide, as well as creating an incentive for crime that ends up arming criminals making society a whole lot less safe. Guns in the home place people within the home 3 to 4 times at greater risk in becoming a victim of gun violence.

The evidence shows that guns are excellent instruments of attack but are very poor instruments of defense. A 2015 FBI study shows that successful defense is outnumbered 34-1 by successful attack. And what is more, for every successful use of a firearm in defense there are 78 suicides and 2 fatal accidents by firearms. Even though this is what the evidence shows however, it is not what common logic holds on to.

I write about this for two reasons. First, because I have been attending a Gun Free SA seminar in Johannesburg this past week. Second, because I think we can transfer this behaviour of “common logic versus the evidence” into multiple areas of our life. We would all do well to check ourselves and better still to invite others to check us (because quite often we are blind to ourselves) on how our words and actions perpetuate the very things we hope to eradicate. In other words how we are part of the problem while we think we are part of the solution.

Grace, Alan

There’s Something

You can stop me
drinking a pepsi-cola
at the café
in the Avenue
or goin’ to
an Alhambra revue,
you can stop me doin’
some silly thing like that
but o
there’s somethin’ you
can never never do;
you can stop me
boarding a carriage
on the Bellville run
white class
or sittin’ in front
of the X-line
on the Hout Bay bus,
you can stop me doin’
some silly thing like that
but o
there’s somethin’ you
can never never do;
you can stop me
goin’ to Grootte Schuur
in the same ambulance
as you
or tryin’ to go to heaven
from a Groote Kerk pew
you can stop me doin’
some silly thing like that
but o
there’s something you
can never never do;
true’s God
you can stop me doin’
all silly things of that sort
and to think of it
if it comes to that
you can even stop me
but o
there’s somethin’ you
can never never do –
you can’t
ever stop me
even you!
~ Adam Small


Salvation is the gift of life

Grace and Peace to you and through you

I think there is a deep part of us that demands immunity from the terrifying terrors of life. Our hidden fears drive this demand. We want exemption status from the basic unpredictability of life. We do not easily embrace the truth that our lives are exposed and vulnerable and fragile. As David Whyte says “… the personality continues to seek power over life rather than power through the experience of life…”. Yes we want to be in control of life and the difficult truth for us to bear is that much of life is beyond our control.

So what do we do?

Sadly, instead of accepting the truth of life’s randomness as a given, we often embrace the illusion of control, certainty and security. Sometimes our religious view or faith understanding feeds the embracing of this illusion. We project our desire for control onto God through the mantra “God is in control”. As if belief in God were some kind of insurance policy against tragedy and that somehow my belief in God is going to keep me safe in this unsafe world. If that be the case then all I can say is this “God of protection” has done a pretty lousy job over the centuries and as of late, with people being killed here, there and everywhere. Surely we have to ask: “What kind of God would favour me over them? What kind of God would protect me and not them?”. A selectively-protective-God makes no sense to me and I believe this kind of reasoning has more to do with my inability to accept life’s fragility than it does with the nature of God. If the life and death of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that no one is immune from life’s piercing.

This is why I personally do not pray for physical protection. God promises salvation not safety. Salvation is the gift of life in all its fullness… regardless of life’s circumstances. Therefore I do pray for salvation. I pray that in all of life’s unpredictable ups and downs I will be alive to God’s loving presence in my life and in the world. Rather than being granted immunity from pain, I want to be alive to God, to Love within the pain. For those with eyes to see, all of our lives are graced with this gift of salvation. One of the greatest privileges in my ministry is to witness people who under the burden of serious hardship or terminal illness embrace the harrowing truth of their situation as a new medium through which to experience the Divine. These people live and die differently – with light in their eyes.

Another catchy phrase that some of us like to say with the same purpose of gaining some control over the uncontrollability of life is: “Everything happens for a reason.”. Well of course everything happens for a reason otherwise it would not have happened. It is obvious, but when we say it we are not meaning it in this obvious sort of way. Rather, what we mean is that whatever has happened is part of a well-orchestrated plan arranged by God or caused by “the universe” (which is the non-religious way of referring to God these days). This often places horrific deeds at the foot of God’s door – as if somehow attributing God responsibility for the deed makes it less horrific or even holy.

Dare we accept the unpredictability of life as a gift that liberates life from an oppressive mundaneness? This does not mean that I resign myself fatalistically to “what will be, will be”. No. I have an ultimate hope that all things will be gathered up within the loving embrace of the Divine. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”.

Grace,  Alan

Toppie Town … watch this space!

Missionaries and Martyrs

Grace and Peace to you …

Today some of us are in Namaqualand. We have been attending our annual Synod since Wednesday. A few of us cycled up here while others travelled by bus. We are in Namaqualand because it is the 200th anniversary of the Namaqualand Methodist Mission Station – yes the Methodist mission work has been going on since 1816 – the mind boggles!

This building has a particular connection with the Namaqualand Mission because we have Rev. Barnabas Shaw’s tombstone in this building [front left on the floor] and it was Shaw who established the first Methodist Mission Station in Namaqualand in 1816. Barnabas Shaw began his ministry in the country among the Methodist soldiers attached to the various regiments stationed at the Cape – despite the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset’s refusal to grant him permission on the ground that “the soldiers already had their chaplain and that preaching to slaves might offend the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church who were well established”.

Shaw writes in response to being refused permission: “Having received this answer I therefore left His Excellency and determined to commence reaching without it. My resolution is also fixed never again to ask any mere man’s permission to preach the glorious Gospel … If Lord Charles Somerset be afraid of offending either the Dutch Ministers or English Chaplains, I am not, and will therefore do my duty. In the course of a few days I began to preach, without any hindrance or interruption…” This means that the Methodist work began by an act of civil disobedience, reminding us all that our primary allegiance is never Caesar but God.

He soon left for the “interior”. After a few days on their journey and just beyond the Olifants River they met the chief of the Little Namaquas travelling to Cape Town to seek a Christian Missionary. This was on 4 October 1816. This “desert meeting” Shaw regarded as a “particular providence”.

At Lily Fountain they built the first Methodist Mission Station in South Africa. The first fruits of Shaw’s ministry was Rev. Jacob Links who in 1822 became the first South African to be ordained into the Methodist Church. Sadly in 1825 Rev. Jacob Links together with Rev. William Threlfall and Johanness Jager were ambushed and killed en route to establishing another mission – making them the first Methodist martyrs.

We know that the words and deeds by colonial missionaries were not all innocent or helpful. Sometimes colonial missionaries were patronising, disrespecting traditional beliefs and at times even murderously brutal. So our celebrations for the Methodist Missionary work cannot be without honest critique.

This reminds us that in all we say and do, regardless of how pure our intentions and strong our convictions, we must remember that we may well be hurting people rather than helping them.

May the story of the missionaries give us courage and humble us at the same time.

Grace, Alan


Plant a Sequoia Tree

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay.
Want more of everything ready-made.
Be afraid to know your neighbours and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit
they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Expect the end of the world.
Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Grace and Peace to you …

This poem by Wendell Berry is quite powerful in its entirety, but there is one line that I have been sitting with…

Plant a Sequoia Tree

It is no small thing to plant a Sequoia tree as Wendell Berry proposes. Sequoias are literal giants among trees! One of the oldest Sequoia trees is thought to be 3,500 years old. Many grow to be 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter and more than 250 feet (76 meters) tall. When I think of Sequoia trees, I think these are the type of trees that the Psalmist describes “they are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” Psalm 1:3.

So, what does it mean to plant a Sequoia tree? What might it look like to invest part of our energy in things that might not make a drastic difference in our present reality, but will make a marked difference in a future that we may or may not see? I invite you to reflect this week about things that invoke in you a sense of holy discontent. What do you wrestle with deeply about the world around you? Change does not come through simply wrestling. Lasting change comes through prophetically imaginative acts like planting Sequoia trees.

I invite you to find two to three people within your life to have a conversation with this week. Ask them about where their holy discontent resides. Share with them yours and begin to wonder about ways you can make a difference. March is water conservation month and I am wondering if there are two or three among you that would like to dream with me about ways we as a community might Plant a Sequoia tree in our water reality. We can know the children of the future will thirst and talk about it or we can work to change this reality a little bit at a time through educating, making changes in our lives, and being a parable community who demonstrates for the world the ways we can come together to make a difference. Let’s do it.

Let’s Plant Sequoia Trees!

With you on the journey, Michelle

Breaking free

Grace and peace to you …

There is a group of Catholic workers in Cape Town that run an organization called Prison Care Ministry. They support the care of prisoners in various different ways, one of which is engaging in restorative justice work. The program is seven weeks long, leading the inmates through Biblical narratives relating to forgiveness and restoration. At the end of the journey their families are invited to join so that the prisoners can apologize to them, and if the families are ready they can extend forgiveness.

Last week I traveled with the team to witness the work that they do. When we arrived at the prison, we were shuttled from the parking lot inside to the prison entrance. There were 29 inmates gathered and rows and rows of family members. Sister Mary Brady, of the Prison Care and Support Network spoke to the group about the importance of forgiveness and shared that it was a process and not one that should be rushed. I appreciated the importance she placed on the prisoners also working to forgive themselves.

The work of restorative justice is to restore the prisoner in relationship with those they have wronged. The Prison Care and Support Network were focusing on restoration with family, community and self the day I was with them. I wondered if the crowd would have the patience to sit through all the stories, but many would shake their heads in understanding as each person shared. Family members were crying with other families. It was simply amazing the connection that was made between these 29 inmates and their families. After each family had shared, they would light a candle at the front.

One man stood and shared that he had not seen his family in sixteen years. His parents had died while he was in prison, but his sister was there. It is unlikely this man will ever be released from prison for he murdered several people and committed multiple crimes. Yet, when he stood before his sister there was something within him I could sense breaking free. He was sharing with her that he believed that he could still make a good life for himself even inside the prison walls. I couldn’t help but weep as he was talking to her. His sister shared with him that she accepted his apology and forgave him. The joy on his face was such a beautiful thing to witness.

As we were leaving, there were too many people to fit on the first bus, and I was one of the ones left behind. I found myself feeling stress as I was waiting for the bus to return. I can’t imagine living behind prison walls for an entire life, but so many of us actually do. There are ways of living out in the world where we can breathe the air of the free, but still live within a prison in our minds or the patterns we have set in our life.

Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” from John 10:10 are a call to break free from the prisons in our minds and our patterns of living. To witness a man so free who will live behind bars for the rest of his life was quite convicting. A question I feel we must all ask ourselves is, “What does it look like to truly be free?

With you on the journey, Michelle

Wondrous Creatures or Dry Bones?

Grace and Peace to you …

On Monday two weeks back I was in Hermanus. Just about where the crowds stand scanning the waters for whales there is this amazing sculpture. It is called “Seemingly Peaceful”.

The old woman – Ouma Sarah – is made mostly out of metal cable. She is sitting on whalebones. A bronze bird joins her. A book is open to a single page of poetry. The sea crashes into the old harbour just beyond her limited gaze.

With her hat pulled down to her eyes and her body folded over her walking stick I was immediately drawn to Ouma Sarah. I had a desire to sit next to her and listen to her story.

Her story given to us through the poetry alongside her should be compulsory reading for everyone. The poem opens our ears to the questions that our great-great grandchildren will ask us.

In the future will our great-great grandchildren witness wondrous creatures at play or will there only be bones for them to sit on?

As Joanna Macy writes: “Life on our planet is in trouble. It is hard to go anywhere without being confronted by the wounding of our world, the tearing of the very fabric of life… Our planet is sending us signals of distress that are so continual now they seem almost normal… These are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us… With isolated exceptions, every generation prior to ours lived with the assumption that other generations would follow… Now we have lost certainty that there will be a future for humans.” (From her book: World as Lover World as Self).

The day after Hermanus I was in Malmesbury where they are experiencing a terrible drought. And yet sadly very few houses seemed to have JoJo tanks attached to their roof drainpipe systems. All of us will have to do this at some stage in the near future. (We are exploring how to do this even here at CMM.) Treasuring every drop of water so that our great-great grandchildren may not die of thirst should be our task.

So I invite you to take a seat next to Ouma Sarah and listen to her story…

Listening, Alan

Today on All Saints’ Day we remember those in our community who died in 2015 as well as all loved ones through time:

Kate Brown, Dianne Hilderbrand, Clement Johnson,
Reginald Johnson, Gwen Kruger, Isabelle Martheze,
Gwen Abrahams, Roy Smith & Elizabeth Storey.


Build a stable foundation

Grace and Peace to you …

A few months ago the old Tulip Hotel was demolished. A well-placed detonator determined its implosion. It came down like a ton of bricks. If you go to the corner of Buitengracht and Strand Street today you will see into the depths of the earth as the foundations are being laid of what will be a new hotel complex.

These foundations will never be seen again (well not for a long time, in any case). Yet it is the foundation that will determine the shape and stability of the entire structure that will be seen. What is below the ground will determine what is above the ground. What is unseen will determine what is seen.

I’ve been astounded at the detail of the metal and cement work. I confess I used to think it was only the finishing touches that demanded such detail, but for the foundation and central core, precision is key. There can be no skimping if the building is later to be safely enjoyed for generations to come.

As you probably guessed – this could be a parable for our lives.

We seldom have the luxury of building on clear ground – almost always we are going to have to get rid of something to make room for something new to be built. And so, most times we will need to demolish stuff in our life before we build anew. This is seldom easy.

Our attachments to what we have always known run deep. Familiarity sometimes breeds comfort when contempt would be more appropriate. So what relationship or habit or dream do we need to detonate? What do we need to leave behind before we can move in a new direction? Boom!

Now we can begin to attend to our hidden life which will ultimately shape and support our public living. To skimp here thinking that no one will notice is a lie too many of us fall for ultimately the public exposes the private – it is only a matter of time. It just takes a storm of sorts to hit.

Foundation building in our life is done on our knees in prayer. It is done in the private sanctuary of reading the heart-exposing Scriptures. Prayer/reading/reflecting … repeating this practice over and over is how a solid foundation is built.

The purpose of which is to discover and cultivate the Divine Centre of God’s presence in our life. As Thomas Kelly so beautifully describes:

“Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma. And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds. These are the fruits, not the roots. A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light…

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking Voice to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is the dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men (sic). It is a seen stirring to life if we do not choke it… the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.” (A Testament of Devotion)

In Practice, Alan

What’s your story?

Grace and peace to you …

One of my favorite things in life is to read stories to little children with exaggerated flare. It makes me smile to witness them scoot up close, put their hands on their chins, and really listen. The little things they pick up from what you read or share are amazing to me. Their minds are so innocent and free from the fear of stepping out of the bounds, which helps their imaginations take flight in ways that are so incredibly beautiful. It is in these moments that I am fully aware of our responsibility to the children of this world.

One of the hardest things I have had to do in my ministry as a Pastor called to global ministry is to visit countries where my hands have touched the face of a child hours before they died of HIV/AIDS, I have knelt on the floor in a hospital praying with a mother who was watching three of her children die for lack of medicine that they never should have been denied, and I have held the clothes of a child blown apart by a bomb explaining to her mother that the God she believed she saw in my eyes would not punish her by taking her child.

There are changes we need to witness in the world around us that actually happen when we allow the eyes of our heart to really see the pain and the suffering of those around us. We can become overwhelmed or we can begin to make choices with how we invest the minutes of our lives. My particular passion is to develop the capacity for strong leadership bases wherever my feet hit the ground. I love listening to peopIe, waiting for the moment that their eyes sparkle in hope, and encouraging them to follow in the direction of their particular passion or calling.

As I have traveled the world, there is something common that I have found about every strong leader I have met. They all are people who understand the importance of history. They have a way of mapping a way towards the future that reaches back to the “dust in the ground” of the past. They do this through their use of story. Sue Monk Kidd has shared that, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

Next Sunday there is an invitation for the community of Central Methodist Mission to gather at 12:00 at the District 6 Museum to be together, celebrate the gift of life together in community, and to tell stories. There is no way to measure the impact of the telling of the stories of the District 6 community not just on the congregation here in Cape Town, but on those that hear them from around the world.

As each of us works towards the best ways to make a difference in the world around us, let us be formed and shaped together by the wisdom of the past.

Question for Reflection:

  • As you think about the world you want to leave for the children of the next generation,
    what changes do you hope to see?
  • How can you be a part of helping to bring about this change?
  • Remember prayer, it makes a difference!

With you on the journey, Michelle